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Connecting Farming and Fashion

Explore the contribution to Stories within Our Isles by Alice V Robinson, a fashion designer from rural Shropshire, who is sustainably-driven. Read the following article by Alice, who talks about her recent works that aim to bridge the gap between farming and fashion, placing sustainability at the forefront of her designs.

During my MA in Fashion Accessories at the Royal College of Art, leather was a commonly used material, chosen for its versatility, durability, and lustre. It has long been synonymous with the fashion industry’s luxury aesthetic, though today in its abundance, leather can often be treated as natural and unremarkable. Whilst beautiful in its finish, modern leather’s anonymity is what intrigued me. Early on in my master’s degree, I became interested in the histories, ethics, and economies behind the material. Growing up in rural Shropshire as the daughter of a large-animal vet, the meat industry that I knew was small and local. Prices in butchers’ shops suggested a true cost of animal welfare and land stewardship. My initial wish was to work closely with these farmers but I soon found out it wasn’t as easy as I’d first thought. I was curious as to why I was able to choose the meat I ate according to its welfare and farming practices, but not able to support the same practices in my choices of material.

I started to work backwards. Questioning leather wholesalers on the origins of their hides and skins, I began to understand the difficulties of retaining the raw material’s traceability. When I asked merchants if they knew where the materials they sold came from, the best knowledge I could garner was vague, “North of France”, information that after further investigation related to a tannery’s location, not the farm.

I resolved to spend the remainder of my time at the RCA creating collection ‘11458’. The piece was made with just the materials and fibres of one sheep from a farm local to my home. Exploring traceability and value, I wanted to form a collaboration between aesthetics and identity by designing within the restrictions of sheep 11458’s materiality, instead of simply indulging in my own limitless design desires with bought material. I was unable to stick to the same deadlines as others in my class as the creation of my work was dependent on a supply chain external to me. Instead of dictating the fashion seasons within my collection, I was working within the seasons dictated to me. 350 mini-burgers from the minced meat of 11458 were crafted by chefs Melanie Arnold and Margot Henderson of Rochelle Canteen and served at the reveal of the collection.

After graduating I began to understand more about varying agricultural practices in the UK, and wanted to reimagine a bridge between farming and fashion where values between the two were mirrored. The complexity and globalisation of both industries’ supply chains meant they were extremely hard for me to begin to navigate or commercially reimagine. I therefore dedicated my first year after graduation to expanding on the principles my MA collection 11458 explored, aiming to understand what it would take to implement them in my own practice.

The rearing of cattle has become increasingly controversial in recent years. An industry of intensification has been exposed and rightfully identified as a cause of imbalance and destruction of ecosystems. It was on my 25th birthday that I talked over these issues with my family and I was reminded of my late father’s herd of Longhorn cattle. Being a large-animal vet he adored cows, and when the opportunity arose in 2005, with a surprise small inheritance from a distant Aunt, he purchased Nancy, the first of what soon became a small herd. Longhorns are native to Britain with an ancestry as far back as the 17th Century. They have indigenous instincts stemming from their oxen lineage and natural resistance to most common cattle diseases, making them hardier than many other breeds whilst also famed for a docile nature. I learnt that day my father’s Longhorns now belonged to a local farmer named Malcolm Adams and my mind was set to enquire more. Tucked into the border of the Welsh countryside, twenty-minutes drive from my family home, I found Charity Farm. Arriving on a golden August afternoon I was chauffeured into the fields for my first introductions. Malcolm navigated the tall perennial grasses expertly aware of each hidden dip. As we reached a flattened plain in the field I could see in the distance horned heads begin to rise, inquisitive of our safari-esq approach but not startled by it, too preoccupied by the rich surroundings.

Dividing the field was a stream, lined with Alder, Poplar and Black Poplar trees, flourishing on the woodland floor were primroses, cowslips, violets, oxlips and shepherd’s purse. The farm's grassland was mainly old pasture with native and meadow grasses such as rattle box and trefoil, with the hawthorn hedgerows full of mature oak and ash. I have since learnt that cattle distribute seeds in their dung, on their hooves and fur, and that it is the roaming and grazing of these animals that stimulates grass growth and helps build diversity through good soil health. The ecological impact of cattle is very much determined by the way in which they live. I couldn’t have been more grateful to know that the herd had found a new home at Charity Farm, and the farm looked just as grateful in return.

The creation of collection ‘374’ began two months later on October 9th, as I drove with Malcolm to the local abattoir. Twenty days later I spent 9 and a half hours with a local third generation butcher, after which I was able to organise the sales and distribution of bullock 374, encouraging those who purchased it to share images and recipes made with their cuts of beef. Attitudes towards the beef and its transparent histories drove the sales, providing a consumer support to the scrutiny of production and an acceptance to a higher price. Ironically and alarmingly the same consideration was not going to be given to what is commonly termed the ‘fifth quarter’, the hide. Due to a collapse in market value and closures of small local abattoirs the incineration and disposal of hides is fast becoming inevitable.

The collection consisted of fashion items, with bullock 374 defining the aesthetic and detailing. A brindled hide and horned buttons denoted 374’s breeding, while information embossed on the leather and suede built further an image of identity. Anchoring this visual was the limited extent and number of products created, with designs tailored to ensure an economic use of the leather, the representation both revealed and centred on the creator: bullock 374. The bullock’s life was mapped, and photography tells the story of the process, both beautiful and challenging. A perfume crafted from the natural ingredients growing at Charity Farm was distilled into a balm for visitors to smell. Collectively the final piece served as a visual and olfactory representation of bullock 374 and Charity Farm, revealing histories to be both appreciated and supported.

Once completed ‘374’ was displayed at the Victoria and Albert Museum as a part of the exhibition ‘FOOD: Bigger than the Plate’ with cuts from 374 later cooked by Sally Abé, Head Chef of Michelin-starred eatery The Harwood Arms and served for V&A Members at event ‘Farm, Fashion, Fork : Bullock 374’. ‘11458’ has since been acquired by the museum for their permanent collections.

Both collections aim to show the true animality of leather and wool through transparent storytelling, in an attempt to reconnect, educate and illustrate the potential for cross industry collaboration. Each number links back to the meat industry and passes meaning across industries. With each piece sitting beside the others, a greater picture is created, and the hidden traces of a former life there to be deciphered: location, existence, age, breed, time and place.

Alongside other projects I am working towards creating a supply chain so that designers can connect with farmers whose practices and values are shared. Through this cross-industry coordination small scale and regenerative practices can be valued, supported, and flourish.

Words by Alice V Robinson | @alice.v.robinson Photographs by Alice V Robinson & Joshua Fray


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